In the shadow of massive mine tailings that symbolize part of its past, the town of Sahuarita is vying to build a high-tech future.

Civic and business leaders broke ground Wednesday on the Sahuarita Advanced Manufacturing and Technology Center (SAMTEC), a 32,000-square-foot building near the southeast corner of West Sahuarita Road and South La Cañada Drive.

The $4.2 million project was funded mainly through a $3 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, with additional funding from the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation, Arizona Commerce Authority and the town itself.

The project is expected to be completed by early next summer.

Sahuarita economic development director Victor Gonzalez said the town’s economic woes following the recession helped it qualify for the federal grant, which he now hopes will help diversify the town’s economy.

“We are doing economic development here literally from the ground up,” Gonzalez said during the groundbreaking event, as a team of surveyors worked the site nearby. “We are really trying to transform ourselves beyond a bedroom community.”

Founded in 1911, Sahuarita grew as a home to miners who worked the Sierrita Mine and later, the Mission Mine.

When it was incorporated in 1994, the town had about 1,800 residents and was mainly seen as a “great residential community,” Mayor Tom Murphy said.

Besides adjacent copper mines and the major pecan growing and processing operations of Farmers Investment Co., Sahuarita has little in the way of production and manufacturing industries.

While the population grew to more than 30,000, it became clear during the last recession that more needed to be done to boost and diversify Sahuarita’s economy, Murphy said.

“The Great Recession showed us that if we stopped growing, we wouldn’t have the funds to provide services to our residents,” he said.

Sahuarita Town Manager Kelly Udall said the SAMTEC groundbreaking marks a historic first for the town, with an investment aimed at building the town’s economic base and growing jobs.

“The whole area here can grow into a tech park, where we can provide jobs for the town,” Udall said, noting adjacent land available for expansion.

The town acquired the land from Rancho Sahuarita, the town’s biggest real estate developer.

The Arizona Commerce Authority, the state’s economic-development arm, gave Sahuarita a $250,000 grant to help pay to extend a sewer line to the property in 2015.

“We recognize that rural communities don’t always have the infrastructure to compete for these job opportunities,” said Keith Watkins, senior vice president for economic and rural development for the Commerce Authority.

Copper giant Freeport-McMoRan chipped in a $330,000 grant through its local Community Investment Funds program, which has totaled more than $5 million since 2010, said Jessica Brack, social responsibility and community development manager for Freeport.

Murphy said the town plans to further grow retail development and is looking at transportation and logistics to piggyback on efforts to boost industrial uses at Tucson International Airport and to build the proposed Interstate 11 bypass to I-19.

Efforts to market the light-manufacturing property have just begun, led by the commercial real estate firm CBRE, Gonzalez said.

One successful Sahuarita-based company, Hydronalix, is already considering SAMTEC.

The company, founded by University of Arizona engineering alumnus Tony Mulligan, has developed a line of robotic watercraft for rescue and research purposes, and its small craft were recently used to survey storm damage in the Bahamas.

The company now employs 28 people in research and development and manufacturing at its main office on Duval Mine Road, about 4 miles south of SAMTEC, and has some employees at other locations in Tucson, Mulligan said.

“We’re looking at it as possibly a place to consolidate,” he said.

Under terms of the federal grant, the building must accommodate multiple tenants, and the town has worked out floor plans to accommodate two or three tenants.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner. On Facebook: Facebook.com/DailyStarBiz.

Reporter

David joined the Star in 1997, after working as a consumer and business reporter in Phoenix for more than a decade. A graduate of Ohio University, he has covered most business beats focusing on technology, defense and utilities. He has won several awards.